J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

“A Non Compos Distracted or Lunatick Person”

Yesterday I described how James Otis, Jr., suffered a severe mental breakdown in the months after he suffered a head injury in a coffee-house brawl in October 1769. (There’s evidence that he’d had manic episodes before then, but the injury certainly didn’t help his stability.) In 1770 Otis didn’t return as one of Boston’s representatives in the General Court, but in March 1771 he ran for that office again and was elected.

Samuel Adams started the legislative session in May protesting about how Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, on orders from London, had moved the General Court from Boston to Cambridge. Instead of seconding that complaint, Otis insisted that shift was within the governor’s authority and even that Hutchinson was “a good Man.”

On 2 June, John Adams wrote in his diary that some people were grumbling about Otis’s “Conversion to Toryism” and that he was “distracted.” It was fairly common in eighteenth-century politics to complain that someone disagreeing with you must be insane, but there were real fears that Otis’s madness had returned.

By 25 November, Otis’s behavior was so erratic that Hutchinson intervened in his capacity as judge of probate for Suffolk County. He sent the selectmen of Boston a legal warrant stating:
It having been represented to me by the Relations & Friends of James Otis of Boston Esq. that the said James is a Non Compos Distracted or Lunatick Person & a proper Subject for a Guardian.

Pursuant therefore to the Directions of the Province Law in such case provided. You are hereby desired and impowered to consider the case of the said James & upon the Evidence you may have Report to me whether you find him to be a Non Compos Distracted or Lunatick Person or not, and such Report to be made under the hands of the major part of you.
A group of selectmen, who included Otis’s General Court colleague John Hancock, gathered that day and the next. They “Agreed to see the said Mr. Otis immediately” and then determined they were “fully of Opinion that he is a Distracted Person.”

Then came a mysterious episode in early December. Two young men, Lendell Pitts and John Gray, were in court after a fight. Months before, Pitts had been flirting with a young lady he’d met on the street only to discover that young lady was a teen-aged boy in a dress and that all his friends were laughing at him. Pitts held Gray responsible for that embarrassment—perhaps Gray was in the dress, perhaps he’d organized the prank. Pitts clubbed Gray over the head. Gray sued for assault, and the case worked its way up through the appeal process.

John Adams represented Pitts, and his very brief notes on the 2-3 Dec 1771 trial include witness testimony and a couple of lines from “Otis” on an episode of cross-dressing in ancient Rome. This was probably James Otis, who was recognized as a classical scholar.

What do those lines mean? One possibility is that Adams repeated some allusions Otis had dropped in a discussion of the case and noted them down with Otis’s name attached. The editors of Adams’s legal papers interpret these lines to mean Otis spoke in court, though he wasn’t representing either side or a witness to the events. G. B. Warden’s 1970 history of Boston goes further and says, “Otis climbed through a window of the Court House and gave a short, hysterical brief on sexual deviations,” but I’ve found Warden not to be reliable on details.

Whatever happened in that court case, on 3 December Otis was “carried off…in a post chaise, bound hand and foot,” according to a letter from Hutchinson to Sir Francis Bernard. The two royal governors no doubt felt some pleasure in the fall of the man who had once been their chief political tormentor.

TOMORROW: So what does this have to do with the North End Caucus?

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